Wednesday, July 15, 2020

'The Most Interesting Country in the World'

A curious passage in Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, 1922-86 (Imprint Academic, 2014):

Tedium vitae.

“To avoid:

“1) The ‘American’ fear of never having lived – leading to febrile nervous activity, continual, unguided experiment: losing your head about living.

“2) Never in fact having lived.”

Why “American”? Are we truly tired of life? Despite the vogue for neurasthenia late in the nineteenth century, Americans are historically known for their energy, industriousness and strong work ethic. Think of Theodore Roosevelt preaching “the doctrine of the strenuous life,” putting an American stamp on Dr. Johnson’s horror of idleness, and Thomas Edison’s various versions of “one percent inspiration,ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Do we as a people fear “never having lived”? That phrase recalls John Marcher and his “arid end” in Henry James’ greatest story, “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903). Marcher awaits some grand, heightened experience in life. His imagination is at once melodramatic and weirdly optimistic.

His acquaintance May Bartram tells him he has already met his great fate. His long wait is over and yet he is oblivious to its arrival. In the park, on his solitary bench, Marcher concludes that her impending death and his subsequent solitude are his great fate. But the horror of this realization has not yet pierced Marcher’s egotism.

After May’s death and Marcher’s yearlong trip through Asia, he visits her grave. The sight of another mourner -- “one of the deeply stricken” – awakens Marcher to his own failure to live. Alone on his stone bench, Marcher perceives “the sounded void of his life.” He has not loved, unlike the other mourner with “the deep ravage” visible on his face. Marcher’s insights come too late. Like others among James’ protagonists, Marcher has failed to live, and as Dencombe, the doomed, doubt-wracked novelist in “The Middle Years,” says on his death bed: “A second chance – that’s the delusion.”

I’m wondering if Americans are catching up with James’ “poor sensitive gentlemen.”Have we grown guilty of Marcher’s self-centered sense of entitlement? Does this, in part, explain our pandemic of ingratitude? Of violence as entertaining distraction? Of politics as surrogate religion? Joseph Epstein titles a recent essay “America, Warts and All.” Against much of the evidence, he concludes:

“[O]ur country, one has a strong sense, is where the action is, in culture and much else. For all the criticisms that can, and should, be made of many of our institutions (our politicized universities, our clogged Congress, our bleak theater), America retains a pleasing liveliness and strong sense of possibility. Our variousness continues to surprise and delight.”

In his next journal entry, Oakeshott writes: “To avoid regret that hinders life. Not to mourn over wasted years that cannot be recalled.”

To which Epstein might implicitly reply: “My own I hope not too heavily politically polluted view is that America is the most interesting country in the world.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

Speaking of Henry James, here's his succinct comment on Jane Austen, which I just read yesterday:

"Miss Austen, in her best novels, is interesting to the last page; the tissue of her narrative is always close and firm and, though she is minute and analytical, she is never prolix or redundant." He was 32 when he wrote that.

Too bad he doesn't mention, at least in this context, what he thinks her best novels are.

(From page 31 of the Library of America's 1984 collection of his literary criticism.)